Month: September 2012
Around the Bend: Looper
The main point that my English teacher has been making while we study Emily Bronte’s seminal novel Wuthering Heights is that choices and repercussions have a very cyclical nature. They are of the sort to affect us, whether in a microscopic way or not, and everyone else forever. The choices made, we are learning, even have the power to effect generations. While the generational aspect may not be exactly the same as in Wuthering Heights, the cycle of choices is indeed a common parallel and thesis in Rian Johnson’s new film Looper, one of the smartest, hippest, most emotionally wrenching neo-noirs to come along since… well, Johnson’s debut feature, Brick. Though, let us not ghettoize the film to simply neo-noir or even sci-fi; Rian Johnson’s third film is just good period.
About thirty-two years in the future, time travel has not been invented, as the gruff voice of Joe (Joseph=Gordon Levitt) will tell you. The only people who do use it are the ones living thirty years from that future, although it is strictly illegal. These people are gangsters and thugs, and when they use it, they use it to get rid of any trace of someone by sending them back in time to a hit man, who immediately shoots them and then collects their payment. These hit men are called “Loopers”, a name that gives way to theoretical concepts of time and space (e.g. the cyclical cycle of life being a loop). When the looper’s contract is up, the gangsters send back the older version of themselves, to be terminated upon arrival. When one person called the “Rain Man” begins cutting contracts short all around the country, Joe must face a difficult decision: killing his future self.
That is the general, trailer and hype version of the story, but the film has less to do with Present Joe (Gordon Levitt) and Future Joe (Bruce Willis) going at it for two hours then one might be led to believe. Instead, the film becomes an interesting exploration on the theme of choices. Both Present Joe and Future Joe must make decisions that will mark and affect their present and future forever. Instead of boiling it down to a reductive, silly Back to the Future thesis of decision making, the decisions in this film have a bigger impact and more relevance on the present. The choices the characters must make are about who they will become, in all seriousness, and what kind of future they will have. Johnson throws in another curveball by making it so the decisions to be made will essentially affect the futuristic society as a whole.
There is an extended conversation scene in a diner between Present Joe and Future Joe that is very reminiscent of an extended conversation scene between a philosopher and a tragic heroine played by Anna Karina in the film Vivre sa Vie. When breaking down and synthesizing theoretical and philosophical concepts, you essentially have three camps of exposition: Vivre sa Vie, which is a lecture in dialogue form; The Matrix, which is a lot of exposition in an effort to synthesize dense concepts in dialogue form; and Inception; which is, if not exactly the most fluid dialogue on earth, at least the most accessible. Looper, strangely enough, becomes a category all its own. Yes, the concepts of making choices and the consequences of those choices on the future and other people are made, but it is written with such breadth and clarity that it hardly seems like synthesis at all. Johnson is a whiz at dialogue, whether he’s recreating and copying a certain hardboiled style seen both in Brick as well as in Looper, or telling a heist story much like The Sting or Paper Moon in The Brothers Bloom. Johnson is able to get his ideas, styles, and themes across to the audience pretty effortlessly. The conversation, therefore, should be fairly accessible to anyone who maybe didn’t love or understand Inception.
Johnson’s style is not only written all over the dialogue, but in the style of the film itself. Its locales are a combination of rural Kansas and a futuristic Metropolis. Its technology transitions smoothly between the present (as in 2012) and the future (as in 2044).Apparently, Johnson’s sophomore effort The Brothers Bloom is described as a “post-modern heist movie”, and if that it is so, it is because of its quirky way of appropriating very classic settings and elements and appropriating them within a very modern context. It’s a layering of the old and the new. Looper does the same thing, making the future not so far away, combing the essences of contemporary technologies and the newness of futuristic tech. It makes it so that it does not feel like a sci-fi film as much as, say, Blade Runner. Its feet are rooted to the present in many ways, and this smooth transition and appropriation of style is fascinating.
Thrilling again stylistically, Johnson returns to neo-noir, with first person narration and all! Plenty of fascinating archetypes to go around, but what is different here is the optimistic quality of the film. Neo-noir is typically filled with a nihilistic state of mind, but, good or bad, the film seems to be filled with hope.
The performances are all around superb, with Gordon-Levitt, underneath layers of makeup to make him look more like Willis, getting that gritty, existential quality of the perfect noir anti-hero. Willis, of course, kicks ass, but with both of them playing the “same role”, there an interesting dynamism about the character that has one actor complement the other in terms of manifestations of vulnerability and masculinity. Gordon-Levitt is the boy; Willis is the man. The relationship dynamic of each trying to prove to the other that they’re better is a highlight of the film. Emily Blunt, meanwhile, slips into (and infrequently out of) a Southern drawl for a hardworking belle whose son holds the key to the Joes’ existences. (A note: the kid who plays Sara’s son gives one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from someone under the age of 21. It does not seem like a 7 year old trying to act alongside heavyweights, it feels like a 7 year old giving the heavyweights a run for their money. He is literally better than Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon and on par with Anna Paquin in The Piano.)
The film does have a sizable flaw: its pace. Its first hour, no matter how many gunshots are fired, is slow and drags on for a bit. The meat of the story and emotion is in the latter half, and while it’s fine getting there, the tone and pace fly around a bit, almost unsure of itself. It isn’t that the film keeps talking about things, but it just seems to take a long time to where it wanted to really begin. It feels as if the key moments in the first half are Present Joe explaining himself, Present Joe meeting Future Joe, and Present Joe meeting Emily Blunt’s Sarah. The moments in between those seem, while not totally unnecessary, not as well written. There’s more passion and pathos in scenes with Joe, which is the danger of balancing large concepts and several characters and using it as a framework around a few key characters. Luckily, it is not enough to mar the experience of seeing the film.
Rian Johnson has, with only three films under his belt, become one of the preeminent visionaries of independent filmmaking. Brick is his masterpiece, but Looper is an excellent film that drags the viewer in to examine choices, both theirs and the characters’. Its unique, post-modern style has now become a trademark for Johnson’s work, while its accessibility with regard to heady concepts and ability to retain all of the film’s intelligence will please audiences. Both Gordon-Levitt and Willis are awesome powerhouses, and while the pace can occasionally lag, the film is quite the thrilling experience. In terms of cycles, I can’t wait to experience all over again.
Mea Culpa: My Favorite Films… That I Forgot
Making my list of my top favorite 101 films was fun. Sort of. As you can imagine, the hardest part was whittling down all of my favorite films (a list I update regularly and runs around 300 or so) down to that rather restrictive number. It was hard. And I cheated a lot by including trilogies, series, and even thematic double features (prostitutes anyone?). But I wanted to show the best of my favorites. And I managed to forget some ones that have been incredibly important to me as well as new films I’ve only recently watched but feel more than confident in putting on the list. It’s about half and half here in that respect. I was originally going post the top ten I’d left out, but then I decided not to decide something that definitive and restraining like that. So, ladies and gents, my list of THIRTEEN films I forgot to include on my Top 101 Films:
1. 3 Women (1977)| Directed by Robert Altman
The loose story of 3 Women came to director Robert Altman in a dream. This dreamlike quality is evident in the loose yet controlled lucid style. A very strange story of identity (that bears a little resemblance to another film on this list), Sissy Spaceck plays a young naïf who attaches herself to the talkative nurse she works with played by Shelley Duvall. Those are two of the three women of the title, the third being a mysterious and enigmatic mural painter. Altman’s surreal structure and dream like narrative is gorgeous and hypnotic. Full of mystery, longing emotion, and expert performances from Spececk and Duvall, 3 Women is a masterwork.
2. Across the Universe (2007) | Directed by Julie Taymore
I grew up listening to the Beatles music, but it was not until my freshman year that I went head on into the Beatles work. And although I had seen Across the Universe once or twice prior and enjoyed it, its impact never hit me until then. The film is unabashedly polarizing, both in its innovative use of the Beatles’ music (warning, cover haters) as well as its intoxicating imagery. Taking the Beatles songs and weaving them into a star crossed love story was, regardless of its execution, one of the most ingenious ideas ever. Considering that the Beatles, throughout their expansive, yet short career, wrote some of the greatest love songs ever as well as some of the most subversively politically relevant music, it was only a matter of time until someone used that and appropriated it as a story. Taking place perfectly within the time of the Beatles career (from the early to late 1960s), Julie Taymore takes the characters’ names from songs (Jude, Maxwell, Lucy, etc.), throws some in-jokes in the mix (“Where did she come from?” “She came in through the bathroom window.”), and some truly dizzying images and makes an audacious masterpiece. Some of the best Beatles covers ever are featured in this film. It’s an incredible love story using incredible music, and just enough to cause a ruckus in the film world. You say you want a revolution…
3. Amélie (2001) | Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Amélie is a quaint, picturesque film about a young woman that likes to mettle in other people’s lives, with varying degrees of success. It’s like a French Emma. But director Jean-Pierre Jeunet uses his camera so elegantly, he creates a quirky, deeply saturated world full of emotion and joviality. Audrey Tatou is absolutely perfect as the meddling main character. She is able to portray the complexity of a woman who likes to live totally vicariously. I don’t think is really a spoiler, but, yes my friends, Amelie is given a chance at love. Were it not for some of the sex and language, the film is beautifully whimsical that it could easily be a modern fairy tale or a children’s book.
4. Antichrist (2009)| Directed by Lars von Trier
I already had three of Lars von Trier’s films on the list, and that was primarily the reason I did not include Antichrist. The viscerally harrowing and terrifyingly abstract psychological thriller was my first introduction into the career and filmography of the director some, including myself, like to call “Lars von Troll”. While Melancholia was made as a result of a post-depression mindset, Antichrist is the film in which he rolls out all of the stops. This is, some have said, his deadly deadpan and sarcastic answer to the world of modern psychology. Exploring gender dynamics and the art of psychosis on film in a perfect way, von Trier nods to Kubrick and Tarkovsky, creating some of the most startling and arresting images ever on the screen. The first half of the film is fairly “normal” (with the occasional interjection of the abstract), Charlotte Gainsbourg plays the depressed patient and Willem Dafoe plays the husband and psychiatrist. Von Trier’s observations about gender dynamics, psychology, emotion, etc. are astute and well articulated. And the in the second half, as the He and She head into the forest called Eden, everything goes crazy and the film goes off the rails. Don’t let the controversial scenes deter you; this film is far more complex and fascinating than its reductive “scissor” ad campaign leads one to believe. With von Trier, there’s no doubt that chaos will reign.
5. Grey Gardens (1976)/Grey Gardens (2009) |Directed by the Maysles, et. Al/Michael Sucsy
Even though Jackie Onasis’ weird relatives, Big and Little Edie Beale, seem, only by description, to be eligible for the next season of Hoarders, which the two have that no Hoarders episode ever could show is gumption and one hell of a life story. A bizarre riches to rags story, the documentary, primarily directed by the Maysles Brothers (the team behind Gimme Shelter), captures a superbly realized cinema verite of how the Beales lived. And how they lived was in squalor. At one point, they were going to be evicted from their previously lavish East Hampton home, but Jackie O came to the rescue and spruced things up a bit. And then it got dirty again. The character that both Big and Little Edie have in them is kind of astonishing. While in the documentary it isn’t made clear how people of such privilege could end up like this, the story doesn’t need to be filled because the audience is so fascinated with the subjects. Everyone who’s ever seen it remembers the very beginning, where feminist philosopher Little Edie gives her “best costume for today” monologue. It’s quite an outstanding look and how Little Edie copes and manages with the life she lives. The decrepit house, the weird relationship Little Edie has with one of the camera guys (beautifully intrusive), Big Edie’s singing and stories of Gould, etc. It’s a fascinating character study. HBO decided in 2009 to fill in some of the blanks and did so marvelously, with Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange at the ready. Recreating some of the documentary footage (which Cinema Verite would do later for An American Family, but far less successfully) and flashing back and forth between the time the doc was being film and their lives beforehand, the two leads settle in their roles gloriously. Barrymore sounds so much like Little Edie, I yelped. Certainly not better than the original documentary, the HBO film makes a wonderful supplement. Grey Gardens is real life character study at its finest.
6. In the Mood for Love (2000) | Directed by Wong Kar-Wai
I may have mentioned in my little write up for Wong Kar-Wai’s other masterpiece Chungking Express that I’ve learned from Asian cinema that Asians are awesome at wallowing in their own self pity. (I should know, as I am Asian and spend my Friday nights crying into a pint of ice cream watching things like Eternal Sunshine.) While this remains true in Kaw-Wai’s loose sequel to his debut Days of Being Wild, IN the Mood for Love presents a romantic yearning that is so powerful and moving that it every other expression in love seems so trite. In Hong Kong in the 1960s, two married people move into the same apartment complex. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung play the man and woman, and the two learn of a secret that will bind them forever. The proceeding events have a tender delicacy and portray a beautiful intimacy that is rarely portrayed on the screen so well. Sofia Coppola said that she was inspired by the film when she made Lost in Translation, and the themes from In the Mood for Love are evident. Wong Kar-Wai’s beautiful film is one of the most stunning portrayals of love ever on screen.
7. Mulholland Dr. (2001) | Directed by David Lynch
David Lynch’s weird universe, form Twin Peaks to Eraserhead to Blue Velvet, is a labyrinth of lies, an enigmatic world of deceit, and a poisonous letter to conventionality. Mulholland Dr. is one of his most puzzling and thrilling films, featuring alternate realities, projections of self, concepts of identity and desire, all in the city of desire and dreams. Lynch’s surrealist masterpiece shows us a deadly Hollywood noir, with a woman seeking stardom (Naomi Watts), a woman with amnesia under the guise of Rita Hayworth (Laura Harring), a director who is losing control of his film, and other various strings of plot. Originally conceived as a television plot line, filled with open endings and unfinished arcs, Lynch added material then the pilot was rejected, giving some semblance of an ending. Well, for Lynch, that is. As to the different theories surrounding the meaning of the film, that is left to interpretation. Nevertheless, the labyrinth of surrealism is one of the most exhilarating rides through Hollywood you will ever take.
8. Ratatouille (2007) |Directed by Brad Bird
I saw Ratatouille in theaters when it was released in 2007. Walking out of the theater, my immediate reaction was akin to, “How the heck did they sell this to kids?” Although easier to market than something like Hugo, Ratatouille’s “cooking rat” seemed like a hard sell. Since when do kids care about cooking? They just kind of expect their food to appear magically, either via their mother or through a drive-through window. But Ratatouille’s endearing “anyone can do it as long as your heart is in it” storyline is sweet enough to melt the hearts of viewers, but not so saccharine that cynics will groan and/or vomit. As usual with Pixar, the strength in the film is its storytelling. It is not really a typical way to tell this kind of story, and the devices used are actually fairly unique. The voice acting from Patton Oswalt is full of life, and after the film, you’ll be left hungry for more. (Kudos to Peter O’Toole to giving life to the cunning and articulate “villain”: a critic.)
9. The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005 – 2012) | Directed by Christopher Nolan
Say what you will about the last film, but Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is a very impressive mainstream foray into the world of dark psychoanalytical character studies, gritty realism, ethics of vigilante justice, and post-9/11 buzz words. Inhabiting a very real world metropolis under the guise of Gotham City, Nolan’s noirish take on the caped crusader presents an interesting thesis to contemporary moviegoers expecting the usual blow-‘em’up action movie: “How does a society react when someone fighting for justice comes to our aid and then leaves? What does that society do in their absence? How much do we need them?” Although interpreted, and logically so, as a very political, almost pro-Patriot Act kind of film, the realistic world that the characters live in make the stories and the characters more relevant than they have ever been. And although the films are very flawed, the ideas they present are at least enough to spark some semblance of discourse. Christian Bale nobly plays billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, a man with his own demons, ones he fights through the manifestation of a vigilante bat. Nolan and his team started from scratch, reinterpreting the Batman’s origin in Batman Begins. In The Dark Knight, terrorism engulfs the city of Gotham through that of the Joker (a stellar and pretty much legendary Heath Ledger), in the form of total chaos. And when the Batman is blackballed by the public, they seek his return when another ideologically motivated terror thrives in Gotham in Bane (Tom Hardy) in The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan’s fascinating look at society, character, and politics make his Dark Knight Trilogy a unique triumph in modern blockbuster cinema.
10. The Terminal (2003) | Directed by Steven Spielberg
Tom Hanks plays an Eastern European man who lives in the international terminal of an airport. His country, well, doesn’t technically exist anymore because of a military coup. Stunted by there being no common language and fending off a mean Customs Head (the delightfully asshole-ish Stanley Tucci), Viktor Navarski must make the most of everything and nothing. He has no money, but the terminal has a wealth of stores. What does he do? He takes those airport carts that refund a quarter and put them back all together so he has enough to get a small meal. Until Tucci stops him. As he gets “used to” living without a real country, he makes some friends in the form of an Indian custodian, a Spanish food cart delivery man, a police officer, and a very flirty flight attendant whom he falls deeply in love with (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The simplicity of the film is its strength, and while it may be in many ways Spielberg’s trademark sap, the film is so light and breezy that it is hardly a bad thing. The Terminal is sweet and affecting and features one of Tom Hanks’ best performances.
11. Wings of Desire (1987) | Directed by WIm Wenders
My English teacher from sophomore and junior year said that Wings of Desire was his favorite film. I got it for him for Christmas, and then ordered myself a copy. I was expecting… talk of angel and love. Besides that, I had no idea what I was in for. And what I was “in for” was one of the most lyrical, ludic films about what it is to love and what it is to live I have ever seen. Wings of Desire follows an Angel who falls in love with a beautiful, lonely trapeze artist and sacrifices his immortality to be with her. As an Angel, he can hear the thoughts, the wishes, the desires of everyone around him, but he yearns so much to be with the lonely soul and to feel something humans call love. Wim Wenders’ film works both as a symphony for Berlin (it was made shortly prior to the reunification of Germany) as well as a tapestry to love itself. It was loosely remade into City of Angels. Skip that and just desire for love with the original.
12. Little Children (2006) | Directed by Todd Field
Very few adaptations of novels ever include the same narrative structure as that of the source material. For instance, third person omniscient narration has, to my knowledge, never been in a film adaptation. (I could be wrong, correct me if I am.) It may be used in films from time to time, even in the form of novel writing or even screenplay writing, such as in Stranger Than Fiction or Adaptation, but not actually an adaptation of a specific novel. Little Children makes a little change to that. Little Children, directed by directed by Todd Field, based on the book by Tom Perrotta (who gave us Election, which was adapted by Alexander Payne), and with a screenplay by the two of them, Little Children is perhaps the most literary film to come in the last few decades (tied with aforementioned Stranger Than Fiction). It at times seems to be a darker, more nuanced American Beauty-esque film, but that just touches the surface. There is irony there, as the film explores the surface of idealized suburban life, but only slightly. It does it in a masterful way, allowing more time to look at the characters: a mother and faded feminist (Kate Winslet), a “prom King” father (Patrick Wilson), and a man who was recently released on sex offender charges (Oscar nominated Jackie Earle Haley). The various routines the married people have and what the sex offender wants are disrupted by various things: an affair, yearning for love form their respective spouses, and the small Boston neighborhood’s reaction to a sex offender arriving on their streets. All around the little children. Stunning performances accentuate the desperation these people have, and, somewhat regretfully, you may find yourself pitying people who may not deserve it at a first look. And all around the little children.
13. The Complete Metropolis (1927) | Directed by Fritz Lang
I bought the Kino Blu-ray of The Complete Metropolis ages ago, and I deliberately continued putting it off because the prospect of a two and a half hour silent sci-fi drama, a behemoth of inspiration and influence, was daunting. Fritz Lang’s epic is said to have inspired Blade Runner, Star Wars, and nearly every other science fiction film imaginable. But the magnitude of importance of the film is far larger than ghettoizing it to the sci-fi genre. Metropolis may be one of the single most important works of art ever created. Its dialog and situations evoke the current political atmosphere, its imagery is reminiscent not only of German Expressionism, but every other style ever used, and its characters are as complex as any human. The Complete Metropolis is THE film to watch this election year. Where else will you see the legendary quote, “The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart!” The film went for decades missing nearly a half hour of footage that was cut when American producers butchered it for its US release. The footage was nowhere to be found until a 16mm duplicate negative was found in a warehouse, of all places, in Buenos Aires. The print was in lousy condition, but Kino cropped it fix the aspect ratio and cleaned it up without removing its filmic qualities. The Kino Blu-ray of The Complete Metropolis looks absolutely stunning all around, and the film is powerful, exciting, and dramatic. Its influence in society is undeniable, form the language of film to the semantics of politics. Metropolis is a towering achievement in art.